Last week, Emmanuel Nganou Djoumess, Minister for Economy, Planning and Regional development announced a master plan to boost trade and economic growth in the country by 2020/2035. The plan, to expand the network to its neighboring countries and its new harbor itself is not as spectacular as the dimensions in terms of price and length that have been announced. With a price tag of 22bn EUR (ca. 15000bn FCFA) (http://allafrica.com/stories/201202080917.html) this project is not cheap considering that Cameroon has at the moment an estimated GDP of 18bn Euros. So why is the government planning such an investment and what is it all about?
Cameroon’s unique geographic location between the developing Nigeria and the resource rich Chad as well as Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon has for a long time spurred trade between the neighbors and through the country.
While most of the traffic is nowadays transported on the road, there is a growing demand for rail transportation on its main route from the harbor city and the country’s economic capital Douala to its political capital Yaoundé and further North to Ngaundere on a meter gauge network. The current network was mostly built by the Germans in the early 20th century and expanded in the 70ies to Ngaundere to transport the bauxite to the factory in Edea (http://www.hydromine.net/projects-cameroon.htm).
Having had the experience of taking the “intercity” train from Douala to Yaoundé, I have to admit that even after the World Bank’s investment in the track maintenance of 2002-2011, the railway is not competitive with the car/coach on the road. This is due to the following reasons:
- The main line, from Douala to Yaoundé is mostly single track, thus it can happen that a train has to wait for hours in case a locomotive on the way is broken down.
- Due to the old foundations of the track and the old railway bridges, the speed is mostly limited to 30-60 km/h.
- The rolling stock, especially the locomotives are over 40 years old and lack therefore in power and efficiency
On the other hand, since the privatization, there has been development towards a more efficient railway operation: Radio communication has been installed and additional diesel multiple units have been purchased. In 2009 (http://www.railway-technology.com/news/news64505.html/), Cameroon has given South Korea (Korea Transport Institute, Korea Rail Network Authority, Korpec and Chunsuk Engineering) a contract to draft a master plan for the future of the country’s rail network. In the meantime, China has shown interest in the countries resources and CNR is supplying rolling stock to the country (in particular new cars for the Yaoundé-Ngaundere railroad, coaches and sleeper cars).
With the new announcement, the government has finally outlined where it wants the country to be heading regarding rail infrastructure within 2020 (http://www.coastweek.com/xin_100212_06.htm):
- Link the projected iron ore, nickel, cobalt, manganese, gold, diamond and bauxite mining sites to the Lolabe-Kribi deep sea port. (short term, decisions by end 2012, implementation by end 2013)
- The railroad to Kumba should become operational again (as far as I know it is still closed). New track to Mbanga, Nkongsamba, Bafoussam, Foumban and Bamenda should be built. Tracks to Nigeria and the proposed Dakar-Sudan harbor railway link through Chad should be added. (medium term)
- It should be done with a Public-Private Partnership in the Build,Operate and Transfer principle. Track will remain state property.
- Double lane track should be implemented where possible and necessary.
- Additional revenue streams should be opened through traffic with Cameroon’s neighboring countries.
- With new rolling stock and signaling system, speeds of 150-170 km/h for passenger trains and 70-90 km/h for freight trains should be achieved.
- The total project wants to take its present 987 kilometers of railroads to an impressive 3269.3 kilometers.
- Given the history of development in the country a few questions have to be raised:
- The master plan seems to target the raw material industry and with that mostly the export capacities. If it is not possible to retain a large part of the value chain in the country, by e.g. expanding its aluminum manufacturing capabilities, the aspired sustainable impact on jobs and economy at large will be limited (http://allafrica.com/stories/201104290309.html). Furthermore, Cameroon is currently a diversified economy with various different sources of GDP, with the investment in the resource industry; this revenue stream would again outweigh the others if there are no subsequent investments in these sectors.
- The program is very ambitious, especially when it comes to development speed and train speed. With the current track, aspired travel times cannot be achieved. The loading gauges of the tunnels on the main line are small and might need expansion; double tracking requires heavy investments in infrastructure (dams, bridges, tunnels); A regauging to 1435mm standard gauge could be beneficial regarding the expected higher axle loads for freight traffic, however most railways in the region are still on kapgauge or metergauge.
- With the history of TaZaRa (Tanzania-Zambia Railway), the choice for Chinese rolling stock might need to be questioned when it comes to engines and local maintenance capabilities.
- The history of Cameroon in terms of successfully completed large infrastructure projects still needs improvement. The short-term projects provide the government with the chance to display its ability to complete a project in due time with optimal usage of its resources and only limited corruption.
One could now conclude that the project is even in its size to large to conduct for a government already struggling with smaller projects in education and infrastructure. And to keep such a network financially surviving, demand for transportation would have to increase multiple times. When looking at the expected growth within the area (Congo, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria…) (http://www.mckinsey.com/Insights/MGI/Research/Productivity_Competitiveness_and_Growth/Lions_on_the_move) one can see that the demand for passenger as well as freight transportation is destined to grow in the area soon enough. I can only hope that the government does not misuse this project to gain political support by the people, to obtain and misappropriate World Bank funds, but to
ensure Cameroon’s economic future in the Centra-Western African Corridor.